Questions and Reflections

November 2019

Re-Re-Learning This Advent Season: Pastor Marc's Note in the Messenger, December 2019

For the last two years, CLC has been participating in an initiative by the New Jersey Synod called "Equipping for Vitality (E4V)." This initiative connects us with other congregations in our area to find new ways to live out our faith in our neighborhoods. Over the last two years, leaders from CLC have been involved in workshops touching on hospitality, sharing the faith, ministry to people in the first third of their lives, the practice of generosity and more. The conversations, prayers, worship and Bible study that was part of these workshops will fuel our ministry into the future.

At our last workshop, the E4V team shared a fun video called: The Backwards Brain Bicycle. It was the first time I saw this video even though it has almost 24 million views on YouTube. I want you, if you can, to go watch the video right now at or by googling The Backwards Brain Bicycle - Smarter Every Day. Once you're done, come on back and read the rest of my message for this month.

I know not everyone can ride a bicycle or lived in an area where learning to ride a bike was safe and easy to do. But I'm going to imagine you've heard the phrase "like riding a bicycle" once or twice before. Like the video says, we say that whenever we want to talk about a life skill we, in theory, never forget. The idea is that once we click into a habit, the habit stays with us - forever. We might not use that habit every day or even for years at a time. But we trust that the habit will always be a part of us and that we'll be able to access it whenever we need it in a future.

Now when you think about your time with Jesus, how much of it depends on habit? Habits aren't a bad thing, and I encourage you to have faith practices that are things you do over and over again. I invite you to pray when you wake up in the morning and before you go to bed, before meals, and to make reading the Bible part of your daily routine. But when life gets busy like it might be this month, how much do we let God sit in the background while we take care of the other priorities we have in our life? And when our life suddenly ends up being different, like a bicycle that turns right to go left, is our faith up to the new challenge we find ourselves in?

The season of Advent is, for me, a season rooted in expecting God to do a brand new thing. God's faithfulness and love are always present but it isn't, I think, merely a habit. Jesus' presence in your life is a radical relationship that is dynamic, passionate, and full of unbelievable grace. Can we, as we light candles on Christmas Eve during our 5:00 pm and 10:30 pm worship, re-re-learn just how amazing God's love is so that we can grow into being who God knows we can be?

See you in church!

Pastor Marc


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Reflection: A Bracketed Faith

Did you notice something odd in our reading from the gospel according to Luke 23:33-43? The copy printed in your bulletin has the first sentence of verse 34 surrounded by brackets. Those brackets are a sign that something about that sentence is a bit odd. And to figure out how odd, we need to recall how our version of the Bible came into being.

It's important to remember that we do not have any original copies of any biblical books. Our versions are a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a—you get the idea. Since the Bible is so important, we're blessed to have many old manuscripts of the biblical text. But the oldest copies we have are only dated to the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th centuries. That means the best examples of the Biblical text that we have come from copies written 100-300 years after the original. And since there were no copy machines in the ancient world, these versions of the Bible were written by hand. This kind of copying can sometimes add errors into the text. A writer, after working for hours on end, might forget a word or accidentally skip a line. Some scribes even changed the text because they *needed* to fix its grammar. However, most of these changes were really insignificant and when we compare different manuscripts to each other, we can figure out what the original text might have been like. But there are times when even this kind of comparison runs into problems. And when scholars end up not knowing if a word, sentence or phrase is supposed to be there, they put brackets around that part of the text.

So the reason why there are brackets in verse 34 is because scholars are not sure if those words are supposed to be there or not. Many different manuscripts have that sentence and many others do not. Those words could have been added by a scribe trying to make Jesus' actions on the Cross line up with what Stephen does in the book of Acts. Or the words might have been removed by a scribe who couldn't stand Jesus uttering a prayer that might never be answered. I don't have an answer on why this text is in brackets but I like that it’s here. To me, the brackets invite us to reflect on our own assumptions and choices we make in our own faith. What verses from the Bible do you ignore? What sayings of Jesus are at the core of how you are? How do you interpret scripture? We all live with a bracket faith. There are parts of God's story that we cling to and others we ignore. I believe we should be honest about our core convictions and about the brackets that define the life we live. Because when we pay attention to our brackets, we also get a chance to lean into the brackets of support that God has already given to us: baptism, communion, this church and God's love. And it's through these brackets that God helps support, challenge, and change us into the people we are supposed to be.


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The Days are Surely Coming [Sermon Manuscript]

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23:33-43

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday (November 24, 2019) on Luke 23:33-43. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Sunday is coming….was a phrase I repeated over and over again this past week. As some of you know, my voice last Sunday was a bit weak so I chose to limited what I did during worship. My plan was to tone down my usual Sunday morning routine so that my voice could slowly recover during the week. Yet my body had other plans and by Tuesday morning, whatever it was that bothered had decided to become an upper respiratory infection. I found myself going through the week without any energy and with a raspy voice that could barely speak one sentence before exploding into a cough. The lovely doctor at the urgent care prescribed me three different medications to take and he told me that I might, just might, feel better next week. Yet I knew that before next week, Sunday - i.e. today - would come. And I had no idea if my voice would make it through this sermon. So as I typed up my manuscript, I knew there was a good chance my voice would spend most of today as a raspy whisper before collapsing into an awkward silence. Now, I’m not really trying to be super dramatic about this because I knew this situation was only temporary. The medicine I’m taking would eventually soothe my symptoms and I should be ready to chant our Advent liturgy next week. But until we get there, we’re still here. And it’s sort of weird writing a sermon that could, at any moment, end up unspoken. So if you were in my shoes - and if you found yourself having only a fragile and whisper-like word that you could use to share Jesus with the people right next to you - what is it that you would do? 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is a sub-section of what we usually hear on Good Friday. Jesus has already been betrayed by friends, arrested, tried, and sentenced to death by the Roman Empire. He is led out of the city of Jerusalem to a little hilltop called the Skull where he is crucified along with two other criminals. Luke, luckily, spared us the details about what crucifixion was like but we know that the community who first heard Luke’s version of Jesus’ life was very familiar with what this public execution was all about. Jesus and the two on either side of him were meant to serve as a warning to anyone else who might challenge the political and civic authority of Rome. A crucifixion was a public event - so these three were placed on crosses within easy sight of the major roads than led into and out of Jerusalem. The actions by the crowd, the stealing of Jesus’ final possessions, and the inscription written in three different languages that was nailed above his head - was all there so that anyone passing by would know what was going on. This gruesome and public spectacle was meant to show that there was no contest between the authority of Rome and this Jesus - who was crucified as if he was nothing but  a common criminal. Since those in power viewed themselves as the ultimate deciders of what was right and wrong, they made sure that even one of those crucified with Jesus would feel stirred to mock and plead with Jesus to save them. Every voice, every sound, and all that violence swirling around Jesus was there to overwhelm the Son of God. Because it wasn’t enough for those in power to just refute, challenge, or ignore what Jesus taught, shared, and did. Rather, he needed to be undone because who he was, and who he chose to eat with, challenged those who were comfortable clinging to the status-quo. In that moment and on that Cross, the voices, words, and breaths that surrounded Jesus were not shaky, raspy, or silent. They were loud because they believed, and trusted, that they had won. 

But it was then when a different voice broke through. And Jesus chose to have a final back-and-forth with another person before his death. It’s only here, in Luke’s version of Jesus’ life, that the second criminal speaks up. And we’re not really sure why he did. Nothing in the text tells us that the criminal knew much about Jesus or that maybe they had met before. Instead, all we know is what we see. And that he, while caught up in the same sounds, voices, and violence that surrounded Jesus, saw what the others did not. The unnamed criminal heard the yelling; the jeering; read the ironic inscription; and experienced the crucifixion - but also witnessed how Jesus, in the words of Craig Kocher, refused to give in to “the meanness and arrogance that surrounded him.” To the cries of blood from the crowd, Jesus didn’t respond. To the clubs and whips that beat him, Jesus [refused] to fight back. To the soldiers who tore his body to shreds, Jesus offered forgiveness. And “on the cross the passion of Jesus’ suffering [was] surpassed by the passion of his redeeming love.” It’s there, when Jesus’ breaths grew short and when his words began to fail, when the criminal seemed able to see that “the tenacity of God’s love [was] greater than the tenacity of humanity’s despair.” 

It’s in that moment when the second criminal grew close to no longer having a voice that could speak or share, when he confessed the truth about who he was and who he knew Jesus to be. He spoke as he was; a person hung on a cross that he was given and that he had earned. And instead of asking for his freedom or to be let go, he simply asked to be remembered by the God who was showing that there’s no where, including the bleakness of death, that could escape from the love of God. In that moment, when Jesus’ breath grew weak and his voice barely a whisper, he responded to the unnamed criminal with a promise of paradise. Yet that promise Jesus made wasn’t only about what happened after he died. Because Jesus, in Luke, was busy showing how God’s kingdom broke into “today” over and over again. Every healing he offered, every sermon he preached, every teaching he gave, and every time relationship Jesus restored or made new - that happened “today.” Jesus wasn’t offering those who clung to him a promise meant for tomorrow. He was offering them a gift for life today. And that life was a promise that today - right now - will not be futile. You, as broken as you are, are seen, loved, and valued. You, in all the ways your love yourself and in all the ways you don’t, are known by God. And You, as imperfect as you are, can give voice to a word that this world so desperately needs. When we, together, love like Jesus, when we heal like Jesus, when we take risks like Jesus, and when we give mercy just like Jesus - we are also trusting that the grace that was big enough to claim us as its own is also big enough for a world that still offers too many crosses. The word we give won’t always be well spoken, clearly stated, or sound well-articulated. But it can, and will, make a difference because we know that Sunday - that the Resurrection - that new life - still comes. And even when our voice is gone and a raspy whisper is all we have - we can still share mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and love because Jesus’ love for us - and for the world - is never silent, fragile, or will ever fail. 



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I Will Give You Words [Sermon Manuscript]

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Luke 21:5-19

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (November 17, 2019) on Luke 21:5-19. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So for today’s sermon, I’m going to do something I don’t usually do: and that’s use a sermon illustration based on a movie I haven’t seen. But there’s a chance you have because the film, Wild Rose, came out over the summer. According to, Wild Rose is about a Scottish woman, fresh out of prison, who struggles balancing her job and her two children with her dream to become a country music star before ending up in Nashville, Tennessee. I’m hoping once my family takes a break from watching Marvel Superhero Movies for the 10,000 time - to actually watch this film because one of its songs is expected to win the Oscar. But what really fascinated me about Wild Rose wasn’t its plot or its actors. Rather, what struck me was the unlikely story of how its Oscar caliber song came into being. And that story doesn’t begin with the movie script or with some amazing songwriting team tinkering for hours in a music studio. Instead, that story begins in a hospital room, 10 years ago, when Oscar winning actress Mary Steenburgen, woke up after having a minor surgery on her arm. As the anesthesia wore off, she realized something was a bit off because her brain, her mind, and what she knew about who she had suddenly changed. 

Now, you might know Mary Steenburgen from her Oscar winning role in the 1980 film “Melvin and Howard.” Or, if you’re already getting ready for Christmas, she’s also Buddy’s step-mom in the movie Elf. For the last 40 years, being an actor was who she was. She obsessed over the craft and she worked hard at her vocation. But in that hospital room ten years ago, what made her who she was, changed. As she said in an article I read this week, “The best way I can describe it is that it just felt like my brain was only music, and that everything anybody said to me became musical. All of my thoughts became musical. Every street sign became musical. I couldn’t get my mind into any other mode.” Mary’s new reality was completely unexpected and it really scared her. She didn’t know what to do. So after a few months living in this new way, Mary did the only thing she could do to help tame the loudness of her new musical mind: she started learning to play an instrument. And she also bugged one of her friends to help turn the music she heard in her head into actual songs. It wasn’t long before she cut her first demos, sent them off to music executives, and found herself living out her new mode, her new reality, in Nashville as a professional songwriter. 
Today’s text from the gospel according to Luke is sometimes called Luke’s “Little Apocalypse.” And we call it that because Jesus’ words are, well, spooky. He mentioned a lot of things that might keep us awake at night - such as the fear of war, violence, famine, and other natural disasters. He also named the different ways we use religion to deceive one another and how even families can betray each other. Nothing Jesus said here was very specific but it’s hard not to see all the chaos around us and think that Jesus was speaking to us today. I do think that when it comes to Luke’s Little Apocalypse, Jesus does have a message for us. But to understand what he’s really saying, we need to pay attention to where Jesus was when he first spoke these words. 

Now, at this point in Luke’s version of Jesus’ life, Jesus was nearing his final to the Cross. He had already shifted his ministry away from the Sea of Galilee in Northern Israel and moved into the city of Jerusalem. While there, he spent quite a bit of time preaching and teaching in the massive religious complex that was the Temple. The Temple, by this point, was recently renovated. One of the old puppet kings - Herod the Great - who was given his power by the Roman Empire, had expanded the Temple, using blocks of stone weighing over 100 tons to fill in the original valley that limited just how big the Temple could be. Herod wanted to use the rebuilding of the Temple as a way to help his brand, hoping his name would be a symbol for what was rich and powerful. For the disciples following Jesus, many who grew up in small rural villages, the Temple in Jerusalem would have been physically overwhelming. It would have appeared to be so powerful, strong, and mighty and it served as a visual reminder of how awesome people needed God to be. For them, God needed a sanctuary worthy of being given grand gifts and it needed to look as if it could withstand whatever nature and humanity threw at it. God’s Temple needed to turn God into a brand where God would, in a contest, over power the opponent and win. Jesus’ disciples, I think, expected Jesus to operate in the same way. They had, for three years, watched as Jesus casted out demons, healed the sick, and fed thousands with a handful of loaves and fishes. Jesus disciples expected him to embody and show how God’s strength and power meant that he would win in all situations. The disciples, though, were a little realistic so they tolerated some hardship and struggle. But they believed that would only be in the short term. They expected Jesus, through a kind of divine power and force, would help them dominate and win at life. But Jesus would surprise them by showing us - that this God-with-us - would instead show us how to live through our life instead. 

When we listen to Jesus’ words in Luke’s Little Apocalypse, we notice that he wasn’t really trying to predict some specific events happening 2000 years into the future. Rather, Jesus was challenging those who followed him to no longer let our expectations of God stop us from living the life God has already given to us. The life we have is never going to be perfect. And it will be filled with conflict, challenge, and fear. We will find ourselves, whether we plan to or not, causing harm to those around us through the actions we or our wider culture takes. We will end up living through things we never truly wanted to experience in the first place. And Jesus wasn’t afraid to tell us how life can be hard. But in the midst of that challenge, he also gave us a promise. He said, through the gift of faith and the gift of baptism, he will give us a new vision of how we can look at our lives. Like Mary Steenburgen, who woke up to find herself living in the world in a new way, Jesus’ words remind us that our faith opens us to the possibility that we can, through Jesus, truly live. We can live knowing that brokenness will be a part of our lives but it won’t be the final word. We can live knowing that we will sometimes get things very right and also very wrong but that mercy can be the default of everything that we do. And we can live knowing that doubt, worry, and fear will always be with us - but that Jesus will lead us into joy and peace. Even when it feels as if the foundation of our life is giving way, Jesus will be there - feeding us his words and his life with grace and mercy. The promise of the apocalypse is that our expectations and assumptions will not be the final world. Because, through Christ, God’s expectations are already being written in our world and we are here to live as if there truly is a new song of hope, forgiveness, and love that will become true mode for our lives and the world.



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Reflection: Unwilling to "work"

Today's reading from 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 contains a clobber passage. A clobber passage is a verse from the Bible taken out of context and used to push a harsh agenda. The clobber verse in this passage comes in the second half of verse 10: anyone unwilling to work should not eat. This passage has been used by a variety of people to punish people who are struggling. I've also seen this passage internalized, making people doubt their value and worth before God. If what we do defines who we are, we struggle to love ourselves when we can no longer do the work we once (or never) did. When we see a clobber passage, we need to recognize what it truly is: a sentence that's part of a wider story. So let's put this passage back into its context to see what is truly being addressed.

According to the author of 2 Thessalonians, a kind of "idleness" erupted within the small church in Thessaloniki. Yet, this idleness wasn't that people had stopped working. Instead, as we see in verse 11, this kind of idleness is related to being a busybody. A busybody is anything but inactive. They are super busy working in ways that are disruptive to the community. In the words of Yvette Schock, "the problem was members expending their energy and giving effort to the wrong kind of 'work' in the community." And, the work being done by these busybodies made the community feel anxious and worried. Some, I think, were feeling resentful of each other. Based on our reading from last week, I imagine some in the community were putting all their energy in speculating about the end of the world. They were so focused about what was to come that they stopped caring about their commitments to one another. Instead of using the promise God gives us in baptism and in fact that we have another chapter in our lives, these people were running towards the end of the world. They ignored the needs of the people around them. They stopped praying for each other. They disrupted the community by refusing to work to build each other up. Instead, they spent their energy tearing each other down.

Today's reading should not be used to target people who are poor, needy or unable to work a job. The passage should, instead, be read in its context. The community in Thessaloniki had turned away from their responsibility to care for one another. They were focusing too much on the life to come while ignoring the life right in front of them. The "living" mentioned in this passage isn't about having a job. This "living" is focused on being part of Christ's church in the world. We have a responsibility and a duty to be like Jesus to one another. That's a calling that takes work. That work is sometimes difficult, hard, and might make us uncomfortable. But that kind of work is also a work that is holy, loving and full of grace. When we do the work of the church, we discover a divine truth: we are connected, we are fed, and Jesus will help us to never grow weary of doing what's right.


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Hold Fast: grace vs Grace [Sermon Manuscript]

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Luke 20:27-38

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (November 10, 2019) on Luke 20:27-38. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


What was the last argument you started in bad faith? 

Now we’re probably pretty good at noticing when someone starts an argument with us in bad faith. They begin by first expressing a point of view or a position they don’t actually believe. Or maybe they’re just trolling, antagonizing us while pretending they’re trying to have a real conversation. Or maybe they’re assuming they’re the only expert in the room - so they’ll never listen to you or anyone else’s point of view. An argument in bad faith is never an attempt at an honest conversation because it’s all about undermining the validity of another person’s point of view. So it’s not hard to notice those moments when no one listens to us. But I’m not sure if we’re always willing to admit those times when our behavior stops us from listening too. So what was the last argument you started when you knew you weren’t going to listen? What was it that made you feel in the right and what convinced you that everyone else was wrong? What, in that moment, were your feeling and thinking? And once you have that experience firmly in your mind, hold onto it. Savor it. Then go back to the start of today’s passage from the gospel according to Luke. Because everything you experienced in your bad-faith moment was exactly what some of the Saduccees brought with them when they chose to argue with Jesus. 

Now the Saduccees themselves were a bit mysterious because we don’t really know too much about them. From what we can tell, they were a movement within the Jewish community who had, by the time of Jesus, become overseers of the Temple in Jerusalem. Many of the rich and politically powerful were also Saduccees and they, as a group, were closely connected to the what the Roman Empire said and did. When the Temple was destroyed in the year 70, the Saduccees basically disappeared from the historical record - so it’s difficult to reconstruct what they said about their faith. We think their theological viewpoint was defined by an intense focus on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and that they sort of ignored the rest. This narrowing of what they considered to be holy scripture meant that some of the things we take for granted as Christians, like the resurrection of the dead, of heaven, and even the after-life, were things the Saduccees didn’t really believe in. For them, in the words of John Senior, “all of the goodness life [had] to offer - love, justice, peace, abundance, and happiness - [was] experienced within its horizon.” Life could only be made meaningful within the limited boundaries of our time on earth. And once death came, that was it. The hard boundary between life and death was firm. Whatever the afterlife - the place of Sheoul - was going to be - would be separate, distinct, and filled with a kind of meaninglessness that would have no impact on our life today. Life was bookended by that meaninglessness - and so the handful of years people lived on earth was really the limit of what life could possibly be. 

So when the Sadducees came to Jesus, they showed up in bad faith. They did not believe in an afterlife or a resurrection as the Pharisees and Jesus taught. They asked Jesus to solve a riddle - one they imagined would show how absurd the so-called future life might be. Now, in the centuries before Jesus’ birth, several cultures - including Ancient Israel - practiced what was called Levirate marriage. Levirate marriage was designed to preserve and ensure the continuation of a family or tribe. When the culturally defined male leader of a family or tribe died, the brothers and other male descendants were called to mary that leader’s widow - and, hopefully, create heirs that would continue the former leader’s legal legacy. Those heirs were needed to make sure that the so-called social norms that governed things like inheriting land, passing on wealth, and preserving the family’s name, would work. On one level, a levirate marriage offered a kind of grace because the widow of that male leader needed the protection of a male family member. She couldn’t, according to same cultural norms, really work, keep wealth, or provide financially for herself or her family. Once her husband died, she could be easily forgotten and forced to live in extreme poverty. A levirate marriage would ensure her survival while letting the family name continue. But this arrangement, while filled with a little grace, was also a problem because it was rooted in patriarchy. The widow in this system had no agency of her own and her survival depended on which males she belonged to. Since she couldn’t generate her own wealth or pass on her own family name, there was no real way she could say “no” to marrying her dead husband’s brother. She was trapped in a way of life that granted her a little grace while denying her the grace of personhood. So when the Sadduccees told Jesus their riddle, they didn’t bother giving her a name. She, like other women caught up in the levirate marriage system, was defined by the male society said she belonged to. We never learn her backstory. We have no idea where she came from. All we learn is that she’s made a widow seven times before she died. And when some of the Sadduccees asked who she would be in the afterlife, they assumed that the grace she was given in this world would be enough. She had survived while wrapped up in a system that would always keep her nameless. So the Saduccees wondered to whom, in death, would she belong? But Jesus answered that she would continue to be who she already was: she is, and always will be, a child of God. 

Jesus chose not to ignore or run past the Sadducees bad-faith argument. Instead, he pushed through, pointing to the limitless grace of a limitless God. The Sadducees assumed that the contours of this life, what they experienced personally, was the only thing that gave us meaning. Any point of view, experience, or reality that challenged what they assumed to be true needed to be confronted in good or bad faith. Yet Jesus knew and gave witness to a new reality where our eternal relationship with God was the primary definition of who we are. We are not defined only by the little bits of grace our culture or our neighbors give us. We are worth more because God chooses to never let us go. There is no hard boundary between life and death that will ever stop God from loving us. And there’s more than one experience, point of view, or way of life that God uses to show us our true meaning in God. The Sadducees wanted Jesus to fall into a trap because they believed life was limited. But Jesus, instead, showed them how our limitless relationship with God can guide our so-called limited life right now. Since we are wrapped up in this grace that will not end, we can - with God’s help - make that grace feel bigger in our world today. We can turn those small moments of grace in our culture and neighborhood into more fuller of examples of God’s everlasting love, by breakdowning all the systems, ideologies, and points of view that undermine someone else’s sense of personhood. Because we, like Moses and Abraham, Issac and Jacob - and even the unnamed woman in the Sadducees’ riddle - we have a God who is a God of the living. And that God wants you, me, and everyone else to know what it’s truly like to live.



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Reflection: Focus

Today's reading from Second Thessalonians 2:1-5,13-17 is a bit strange since there's a big gap within it. We start off by reading the first five verses from chapter two but then skip to verse 13. Luckily, the missing verses do not get in the way of noticing what Paul was writing about. This is a text that wants us to ask ourselves a question: what kind of news are you always on the lookout for?

I think we'd like to say that we're into good news. But when we turn on our TV or scroll through the front page of any newspaper, the news we love to click on is mostly negative. We pay attention to whatever is the most recent tragedy, and we linger on stories when they're full of fear or sorrow. We even might get caught up in the most recent conspiracy theory, especially if that theory makes us feel superior to everyone else. Bad news is exactly that. Yet we hunger for it, devoting our time and energy consuming it over everything else. Because, for whatever reasons, we love to share stories that eventually end up as plot lines in Law and Order.

When we spend our energy focused on what's bad, there's a chance we'll miss seeing what's good. We end up being consumed by these negative thoughts and create an alternative reality filled with false facts. The more energy we spend in that false reality, the more we miss seeing what God is doing in the true reality. And this, I think, is what Paul was getting at. We need to be wary of all those who try to create alternative realities where one person or organization is seen as holding "the truth." Because, they will live in what's bad and miss the good news of the truth in the person of Jesus Christ. When we cling to His good news - good news rooted in a relationship with God - we are given the ability to see the world as it truly is. We'll see the true sin in the world but also what is good. We'll discover how we contribute to that sin, how our claims about "fake news" are anything but, and how we can grow into something better than we once were. We will often bear witness in a world that sometimes prefers a false reality to the truth. But we stay with the truth because we trust that Jesus' story will be our own. This trust isn't something we can figure out on our own. It's a gift, given to us by the Holy Spirit, that opens our eyes to God's reality. And when our eyes are open, that doesn't mean we are better or smarter than anyone else. We just have faith - and that's when we'll see the good news in Jesus because God, through Him, is creating a new future of love, mercy, and hope.


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Forever: The fullness of our story [sermon manuscript]

Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."

"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."

Luke 6:20-31

Pastor Marc's sermon on All Saints' Sunday (November 3, 2019) on Luke 6:20-31. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Part of my work as a pastor in the New Jersey synod is to help in the formation of new pastors and deacons for the church. Every year, an incredibly diverse array of people feel the call to shepherd God’s people. It’s my job to guide them as they add a new chapter into their already complex, indepth, and faith-filled personal story. So last Friday and Saturday, this candidacy committee met with a group of people who are starting and finishing up that process. We held interviews, filled out mountains of paperwork, and we prayed a lot. The story of the church and the stories of the people God calls to lead it can, sometimes, be pretty messy. But we know that Jesus is always present - and is transforming our entire story into something new. 

We met on the other side of New Jersey in a place I’ve never been to before. And that’s Zion Lutheran Church in Oldwick. As a history dork, I found this to be very cool because Zion is the oldest Lutheran congregation in all of New Jersey. And to put that in perspective, I was thrilled that we here celebrated our 60th anniversary just last month. Yet when Zion in Oldwick celebrated their 60th anniversary, the American Revolutionary War had yet to begin. They are a community of faith that is over 300 years old. Their story as a church is long, complex, full of beauty, and full of messiness. Yet they are still figuring out what it means for them to faithfully follow Jesus. Their longevity as a congregation does not mean they know the one perfect way to be “the church.” Rather, their story is very local, connected to the people, community, and geography of the place they call home. Their story, their complete story, is bound together with people. And so sometimes, when it comes to Jesus, it’s important to notice, to name, and to listen to the people who are already there. 

In today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke, people are everywhere. Jesus cared deeply about how we treat each other. So he started his sermon with “Blessed are you who are poor” and that “you” was not meant to be abstract. Jesus wasn’t spiritualizing people. He was talking to real people who were living very real lives. But that can be hard to hold onto when Jesus preached like he does today. Because he gives us a lot of words and these words move quickly. We start out with all kinds of blessings and woes, loving your enemies, and a command to turn the other cheek. We hear that we should celebrate when people exclude us; that we should pray for those who abuse us, and that we shouldn’t ask for anything if someone takes something from us. We know that Jesus’ words are meant to take us somewhere but as we listen to this passage, we’re not sure where he is going. Finally, when we get to verse 31, we run into something that feels like a summation of what came before. Everything difficult that we just heard feels more manageable when its condensed to simply be the golden rule. How we care for ourselves and for others is all over this passage. And the last verse, “do to others,” is a clean and neat way to sum up this story while leaving the uncomfortable and messy bits behind. 

But there’s another place in this passage where people show up. And that’s at the very beginning of today’s reading. Before Jesus said anything, we hear that he and his disciples were together. Yet in the background of this scene, Jesus was also surrounded by a crowd looking for love, compassion, and healing. So while in the middle of this swirling mass of humanity, that’s when Jesus spoke. Yet what struck me as a bit different today is that, unlike other times when Jesus preached, he wasn’t described here as being physically above his disciples. They weren’t there looking up at him. Instead, Jesus looked up at them. Rather than speaking in a top-down kind of way, where his body implied that his words were coming down from on-high, Jesus spoke from below. He spoke from the place where healing needed to happen and where the uncomfortable and messy bits of life feel the most real. And since Jesus chose to speak up from that place, it showed that he was already there. Jesus wasn’t only interested what was tidy; he chose to be with us in our life as it actually is. Because it’s there when the truth about who we are and whose we are actually meets. And when we hold onto the fullness of our story, that’s when we finally discover how Jesus has shaped, formed, and molded us so that grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love will be there at the beginning of everything that we do. 

So unlike us, there are no photos or images of Zion Lutheran Church’s very first worship service. If we want to see what it was like, we have to use our imagination. I’m sure many of us could visualize the colonial farmhouse that service was held in and think about who might have been there in the early 1700s. We can picture the tri-corner hats, the long dresses, and the identities that made up those first Lutherans who settled in western New Jersey. There’s a good chance no one spoke English that day and their style of worship was different from our own. But I think we’re pretty confident that we could each describe what that first part of Zion’s story looked like. So as you mentally hold that image in your head, I want to invite you to identify the family that farmhouse belonged to. Prior to their move to New Jersey, that  family were members of the “Dutch” Lutheran church in Manhattan. The head of the household was named Aree van Guinee, which is very dutch, and he had a rather large and multi-generational family. From what I can tell, he was through and through faithful Lutheran. But unlike what we might expect, he came from Africa. He had, at some point, been forcefully abducted and brought to this country as a slave. And after gaining his freedom, he created his own household and he would eventually donate the land Zion Lutheran Church was first built on. Rarely do we, as Lutherans, remember that our diversity as a community is rooted not only in the Germans, Norwegians, and Swedes who brought their faith with them. But when we go back to the beginning, to the people who were already at the start of the story, our history in New Jersey is rooted in a freed African slave and his family.

There’s a messiness in that story - but there’s also a vision of what the church is when we take seriously the fullness of our story. As we, through faith, worship, prayer, and by spending time being this church together, we end up being transformed and changed by Christ who is not afraid of the messiness of who we are. Instead, he’s too busy loving us - and showing us how we can love by not hiding the bits of our story that makes it hard. We are heirs to a faith that passed on to us by people who were already present before we are. Their story, with all its messiness, is our story - and our story, with its messiness, is the church’s story too. On this All Saints’ Sunday, when we light candles in memory and in honor of all those who showed us what God’s grace and love actually looks like, we also acknowledge the fullness of our faithful story. Because that story, through Christ, has already been seen; it’s already been known; and it’s even now being shaped and transformed by God’s grace so that love will be at the forefront of everything we do. 



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Reflection: Inheritance

If you read the Bible from cover to cover, you might notice that the Bible talks about inheritance a lot. In the Hebrew section, there are stories where inheritance is central to what God is doing in the world (see Numbers 36). Jesus in many of his parables dealt with the impact of inheritance (i.e. the Prodigal Son). And Paul's letters to the small Christian communities scattered around the Mediterranean Sea, used the language of inheritance all the time. We know that inheritance is a big deal. Those with assets that will exist after we die need to create wills and make plans for how those assets will be passed on. But whenever assets and money are involved, problems (especially in families) come. We might think that people in Paul's day expected to receive some kind of inheritance during their lifetime. But their reality was very different. Few people ever earned enough money or had enough stuff to pass on to others. Most people lived at the poverty line. Yet people knew what inheritance was all about. And in our letter today to the Ephesians, the author described the inheritance we've already been given.

When you're reading this passage (Ephesians 1:11-23), make sure to read it slowly. The sentences are long, complex, and full of punctuation marks. The author is crafting a picture and using relationships as its paint. In the ancient Near East, hierarchy was everything. The king or emperor stood at the top, the quintessential human being. Everyone's value was then defined by their relationship to him. The king had certain responsibilities - i.e. to administer justice, wage war, and keep the peace. Yet their authority was, in theory, complete. They were the ultimate human being and sometimes viewed as gods. Your value was determined by your connection to your king - and whether you, in the hierarchy, could make some decisions on your own.

The church, and those who follow Jesus, know that Jesus is their king. He is the ultimate authority, the quintessential human and divine being. Yet where normal kings wield their power to tell others what to do, Jesus is the king who was crucified. And that, at its core, is scandal of our faith. The one who had authority chose not to use it the way we expected him to. Instead, in humility, he showed us that there was no experience in our life that God would not go through with us. The inheritance we're given isn't tied into any material or financial assets. Rather, our inheritance is rooted in a relationship where mercy, love, and forgiveness rule. While we clamor to see what we get in our inheritance, Jesus is busy giving us his life so that we can see what God's love is all about. The hierarchy of Christianity will always subvert the idea of hierarchy as we understand it to be. Whenever we look up towards God, Jesus is too busy coming down to us; because we, through our baptism and our faith, are his pledge of love to the world. And we're called to live a life where our inheritance from God actually matters.


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